Some tips about recording -
I first wrote this article 6 or 7 years ago but much has changed since that time. Back then I was still recording on to analog tape. It's now early in 2009 and as I am making preparations to record again I see that there are definitely some corrections and additions that should be made to this article.
Certainly with the advent of affordable digital home recording equipment the whole recording landscape has changed. For me it has meant that I've been able, through Protools and my trusty Mac, to install my own bare bones studio (Rue Voltaire) here in our converted garage. Having that studio and the equipment (2 decent mics, one channel strip, compressor, preamp, amplifier and monitors) has truly changed my awareness and knowledge of recording tremendously.
Now it's ME that must figure out and then make the decisions about all the details that go into any mix and that is a huge leap of studio know how. Sometimes it's a hair-puller but once in awhile you get that really good mix going or figure out a good sounding move and it's a great, great feeling. I like it a lot. As I am a fan of DIY (do it yourself) roll up your sleeves kind of work ethic I went online a while back and bought a book the looked fairly decent. The book (including CD) wasn't bad (“Pro Tools Clinic” by Mitch Gallagher) but to be honest, with no index or glossary, I found it to be clumsy, difficult to find specific answers to my questions and essential-after the first read through- basically useless.
As it turns out, once I had the actual physical studio wired and running has been the hands on "doing" of recording. Each time I turn the electricity and create a session I make huge strides and that "doing" sticks if that makes sense. There is a pretty steep learning curve when it comes to Protools (meaning slower at the beginning and increasing incrementally with usage) and it can be quit frustrating at first.
The biggest help and resource in this whole process (outside of numerous phone calls to studio-wise friends!) during these past 3 years has been my home subscription of TapeOp magazine. This is a free subscription, bi-monthly, home delivered "creative music recording magazine". This rag is a fun, down to earth read with tons of info on every aspect of recording. Not just for studio or gear heads either. If you're a home recordist or even just rent the occasional studio time, this magazine is for you. I read each issue cover to cover and it's made a huge difference in the knowledge of what I can or won't do, both here at Rue Voltaire and in the downtown studios I also use. Check it out at tapeop.com!
You are still on your own with Protools though but after reading of others adventures you'll just want to move ahead no matter what! So listen, these are just a few thoughts and ideas… Read on… Preparation:
Find the best studio and engineer you can afford. I know it seems obvious and simple but you want your CD to sound as good as possible and both of these ingredients will help you tremendously in realizing that goal. Not everyone has the luxury of choice (finances or location limitations i.e.) but studios are important. Fees will rise in price because a) there is more and better gear, b) the space itself has been modified (tuned) for recording and/or c) the engineer/owner has more experience (or successes). This is not to say that amazing recordings can't be made in your bedroom with just one microphone and a mini-disc player or even on your own computer but let's face it, sonically at least, gear, knowledge and experience in the studio do make a difference and you will normally have to pay for that.
So do some homework. Shop around and compare different rooms. Call and make appointments to stop by a few different places. Each room has different sound characteristics and certainly the atmosphere (vibe) is important. Ask to hear some songs that were recorded in the room you are looking at and especially by the engineer you are going to be working with! (These demo tapes are fair things to ask for BTW).
Is the studio/engineer familiar, comfortable and knowledgable about working with the kind of music you want to record? You should be able to get a sense of whether the gear is good or not and if there is enough of it to fit your needs. Also keep in mind that sometimes studios might have great recording rooms and be good for just that but might not be good for mixing (or visa versa). You might consider splitting the sessions into recording and mixing time periods and do those jobs in different places. This might also be a way to stretch your budget.
Many of my friends these days are using studios to do basic tracking (drum and bass especially) and then taking those sessions digitally back home with them to continue making overdubs and doing basic editing on their digital audio workstations (DAW) on their own time. Your budget really is a factor of course. As you start to check out different rooms and get an idea about what you want and can afford, your project will start to become focused. We all work with limitations and there is something good and positive about that I think. Budget is a limitation but not necessarily a negative one!
Songs, songs songs. You can have all the greatest gear in the world to help but nothing is going to make a wonderful record like a collection of good songs. You really need to have all your best tunes in order and well prepared. Get some feedback from friends or other professionals because it's often difficult to be objective about your own work. Perhaps good songs will not insure the success or failure of an album but it will be the first thing everyone will remember or criticize if those songs are NOT there. It's also a good idea to have more songs than you think you might need. Sometimes during a session a song can take on a distinctly unpleasant characteristic and latter you'll find yourself happy to have had the option of NOT having to include it. Hey, those unclaimed songs can make some great B-sides later!
Have your material ready. Be well practiced. This will save you time, energy and boost your confidence level.
Well-practiced does not mean forgoing the creative energy or spontanity that can and often does happen when tracking. It just means that having your beginnings and endings figured out, knowing who is handling the different solos and all the rest should help the sessions roll along. Recording sessions are not the time to be fiddling with endless soloing, jamming or fighting over time signatures. (Unless of course that's how you operate?). A real positive way to help your songs get ready is to do some preproduction work yourself. No matter what kind rig I've had in the past I always do home demos of the songs I am considering. For any number of reasons this is a good idea. It will help you get up to speed and into a good headspace with your material. This step should also help "set" the songs in your head as well as give an indication of what is good and what needs to be improved upon.
Have your instruments tuned, strings changed, cables and amps checked BEFORE the sessions. Are your guitars intonated and tunable? Are your harmonicas in tune? Will you tune your drums? New heads? All your gear must be in as a good a condition as you can make it. Also be sure to have a good supply of picks, strings, sticks and whatever.
To producer or not to producer. Objectivity, arranging, song lyric help, session management, technical interfacing, hand holding or even just an overall sense of stability are some of the positive things a good producer can bring to your recording sessions. Each producer will have different strengths and talents of course. Some musicians have the ability to be objective enough to do the job of quality control on their own projects and do a damn fine job of it. If you are not this person then you'll either need to being in an outside individual or ask if the engineer can fulfill this role.
Often times they will do this or at the least work with you in a kind of co-producer role. Remember though: a good engineer is not necessarily a good producer or visa versa. It's something you should definitely talk with him/her about. Also your budget is a factor with the producer questions. Unless you have a qualified friend who is willing to do give you the "love" rate, producers will ask for and deserve to be paid for their services. In many ways, they become another band mate (although probably the best paid one!).
If you are lucky enough to have a big enough budget then don't forget that it's entirely possible to reach beyond your local environs and contact someone out there in the big world that you like. You should know the production credits on those albums you love. I would imagine that most producers are always looking for more work and being contacted by musicians in search of their services is part of their job. Never hurts for you to ask anyway and you might just be very surprised by a favorable response. (Note: they will want to hear something that you're thinking of recording. That means demos of some kind. Be ready with it when you call!).
My own personal experience has taught me that a producer is a fine idea. I've had good and bad experiences self-producing my own albums but, in general, with a producers helping to share in the work load, their creative input and the taking control of the overall session management are all areas that help improve my creative musical processes and just steady the ship in generally. For me, the end results benefit greatly!
Take the time for a good studio set-up. It always takes some hours for the engineer to place all the microphones, so go with the flow. While he's doing that you can do some other stuff. If he knows the room he'll surely know the best placement for your amps, drums, singing and all the rest. Listen to his suggestions also keeping in mind your owns needs for sight lines with other band mates, your usual playing positions etc. A good engineer will certainly understand this and they will do their best to accommodate your wishes as well as keeping in mind their own needs to make a quality recording.
Arrange a comfortable area around where you'll be recording. A good chair (that doesn't squeak!) for sitting, a small table for your candles, guitar picks, drinks and other doodads, a music stand and the right lighting are all important elements that can really help sustain your head, body and your performances.
If you can do it, a good sound check on all the major instruments you'll be playing is a good thing. This is not always possible but I like to do it at the beginning rather then in the middle or later. And this means headphone balances as well. Vitally important to be able to hear yourself and it's surprising how long it sometimes takes to get levels adjusted. Once you really begin to record thought it's nice to have the major part of the set-ups finished so you can move easily from one musical idea to the next. It always seems to take most of that first day to do all these kinds of things so I just get into it and figure if I can get one song started then that is a good day-one.
Once most everything and everybody is mic'd up and everyone is comfortable, it'll be time to do a test recording. You'll want to go and listen to how it sounds in the recording booth. Is that how you want the drums to sound? Bass? Guitars-both electric and acoustic? The closer you can get your "recorded" sound to the one you hear in your head the happier you will be when you leave the studio. And this is BEFORE mixing or effects.
Different microphones are a big factor and moving the mic a little bit in either direction can really change how it goes down on tape. On my last record we tried 5 or 6 good vocal mics before settling on one that worked best with my voice. (It was an Audio-Technica 4033 BTW).
Don't be afraid to ask questions. Do make suggestions and be creative. This attention to detail at the beginning will make help the whole recording process more pleasurable and also make the mixing easier. Again: take the time here and do it right. Better to get it right at the beginning then to "fix it in the mix".
I like to have some kind of recording plan and have it posted on the studio wall somewhere. This basically means a list of songs and the different instruments your considering. As those parts are finished you can cross them off. It's a good feeling towards the end of the sessions to see the list getting smaller and smaller. Anyway, a list can be useful because it can help keep you focused. You don't have to be a slave to it but, if your stuck or have 30 minutes here or there, you can keep moving forward.
Maybe start off with something simple or the song you know the very best. And that doesn't necessarily mean a slow or quiet song either. For me anyway, often times those quiet songs are the MOST difficult just because there is so much space. Unless you've worked with the engineer before he'll probably need and appreciate a confident start from the band. This will save you some time in the long run. Also - try to be flexible. If something is not going down to tape well perhaps it is better just to move on to the next song. Often times beating up on a song with repeated takes have disasterous results. Personally speaking, I'm good for 3 or 4 takes. Too nervous on the first, try-too-hard-stiff on the second. The 3 rd time is when I usually settle down and start to play music. After that there seems to be a point of diminishing returns quality-wise for the song. If you can recognize this (not always easy) you'll be ahead of the game.
Have copies of all the song lyrics for everyone including the engineer! (Double spaced typing is best). When you're doing vocal overdubs (or live) it's easier for everyone involved to be able to point out exactly where they need to talk about. Once again this is a time saver. The engineer probably is not familiar with your words so these lyric sheets can be very helpful.
Try to keep reasonable recording hours. Normally the engineer will let you know what hours they prefer and you'll have to go by that. But it is not as easy as it sounds. Usually what happens is that songs take longer than anticipated and so you start wanting to put in longer and longer days. But when fatigue sets in tempers can flare and you can start making wrong decisions. Tired ears are not happy ears. It's good to keep stress levels low. 8-hours days in the studio are long days. Good and restful sleeps will help you record better.
Split your recording day into two parts if you can. Take a healthy lunch/dinner break. Get out of the studio, get some fresh air, take a walk or do something physical. Staying healthy is important for all the obvious reasons. You owe it to yourself and everyone else involved especially working in such close physical proximity to each other. Your album will definitely benefit for sure.
Be careful about saving all your vocals to the very end. I think it's better for the voice to sing a little each day instead of all at once.
Headphones. - Again, this is just my personal taste and experience but I have always (mostly) found that I get better performances when I don't use headphones. Now of course this isn't always possible and I do accept the fact that in overdubbing you just have to work with them (although I've been reading lately about just using the monitors in play-back works fine). It's just that for basic tracking there has always seemed to be a little more "life" or emotion on "non-headphoned tracks". I don't really know why except that perhaps without them is more like how we play live. I tend to be a bit too careful and cautious when I can hear every little tick and thump that headphones tend to amplify. Ok, this is my preference for sure but I only include it here, as it does seem to factor into recording performances. You wear headphones at your gigs? Of course if you're using isolation booths and are separated from each other's sight lines then all of the above is mute.
Click tracks - the same thoughts here. To use or not to use. I've gone both ways. In the beginning I tended to find certain stiffness in songs using click tracks and, if I had the choice I would always say no. I'm much better now with being able to “swing” a click tracked song. The secret really is just being able to relax and allow that little mechanical tock to have it's own space. And a click can and will save you time, especially when it comes to overdubbing. A good way to prepare you before the sessions begin is to practice at home with a metronome. It works too!
Beware of "demo love" - I can't tell you how many times I've been caught up into this trap. How it works is that after your initial sessions are over but BEFORE the final mix-down, you'll get a CD with rough mixes of the songs. The engineer will put up a mix and throw on whatever reverb and goop he's got handy and voila - you got something to take home with you and listen to for a while.
What's supposed to happen is that you sort out the good and bad parts in your head so that when it comes to mix-down time you'll have idea of what you do and don't want. What actually happens though is that because you've listened to the song so many times you start to like the demo and this is not ever the correct mix that should go onto the record! So next, when you do begin the mix sessions and the engineer starts doing the "right stuff", you start fighting to have it sound "just like the demo"! It's a trap! This is such a common occurance (or otherwised known as a job hazard for mixers) that it's not unknown for them to willfully put up bad mixes on the demos you take home just so that the "demo love" syndrome is short circuited.
- Even after the recording there is one more vital step to ensure that you have the best sound recording possible. I suppose nowadays the importance of mastering is common knowledge but I include it here only because it cannot be stressed enough just how important a good mastering job will be to the final product. And yes, you can now buy decent digital mastering programs for your home rigs that will, with a little effort, most assuredly help your album come alive. BUT a mastering engineer listens to music differently then a recording engineer and there is NO digital program that will give you a short cut for that.
A good mastering engineer can give to your music many different things (EQ, sequencing, overall volume adjustments, a final file used for manufacturing) but mostly they will give a balanced sonic consistency to the overall recordings. Too much bass? Too loud/soft? Muddy in the middle? Sequencing? Pops and clicks? All adjusted and corrected. I know that budgets are tight these days and often time's studio time will end up going longer than anticipated.
Don't start taking short cuts here at the very end though! If you don't know a masterer personally ask around for recommendations. Your own engineer or the studio you're working in will have a short list of names for you to choose from. Once again - if you're not sure about a masterers work, ask to hear a demo of what they've done. You don't necessarily need to be there when your music is getting mastered but you do have the right if you want. It's your money. These days though it's not uncommon to post your hard-drive with the session files and they'll do all the work long distance.
I've heard it discussed as both ways being best (the artist being there or not). Certainly the engineer and you will need to have discussions about your over-all sound and the vision for you record and that's as it should be. Personally speaking I've only been at one of my mastering sessions (The Blue Room) and that was cool. Seemed to help the overall mastering session as well but the masterer was in Seattle and it just seemed to work out ok.
All the rest of my Cds I've not been present and to be honest, I've been quite satisfied. Any issues were discussed, changes made no problem and it was done. The good engineers are pro's and your happy smile after they are finished with their additions and corrections is their best recommendation and also of course their continued longevity in a very competitive marketplace.
Oops- one last thing…
Artwork - I'd like to just say one thing about a subject that has been driving me nuts lately and it has nothing to do with the sound of your record. Still and in my opinion of course, this reflects directly on CD quality. JUST BECAUSE YOUR COVER DESIGN LOOKS GOOD ON YOUR LARGE COMPUTER SCREEN DOES NOT MEAN IT WILL LOOK GOOD AS A CD sized COVER! And this also holds true with font: just because you have access to hundreds of different fonts does not mean you have to use them all or even the most obscure one you can find.
What happened to quality control here at the last stop? ‘Nuff said.
Ok - that's it. These little tips are just some of my observations and I make no claim at being any kind of recording expert. Still, for me this site is about sharing and hopefully you got a laugh or, even better, some bit of what I've learned will elevate your own project. I still get a rush every time I step into a studio to make a new record and really do consider it an honor to be able to be there. It's one of the best percs of this job of music that I do.
Although at times it is work (and damn hard work at that!) still, for the most part, it's been a rewarding process. Hey, at the end of the day you get a record of what you've done and hopefully the satisfaction and rewards of a job well done. I look at recorded music as sound slices – emotional AND technical performances that are set to disc. Delivering those performances to the best of our abilities is what the recording studio, the producer, the recording and mastering engineer are all there for.
As artists we should be using the tools of our trade to the best of our ability to elevate our music. The clearer you are in the painting of your picture inside of the studio hopefully the more successful you will be in the outside world. A firm grasp and understanding of the different recording processes are an integral part in giving you the greatist chance of capturing the best parts and performances of your music. Try to keep it fun and the best of luck to you!
Terry Lee Hale
March 5, 2009
The old article:
Ten tips about recording
Know your material.Unless your very rich and have unlimited studio time, knowing your songs is important. Beginnings, endings, guitar solos ect. ect. should be practiced BEFORE beginning your recording. This is not to suggest that you shouldn't be open to that creative spark that often happens while recording. It's just that trying to figure out an ending or how to play a solo is costly and probably boring for those around you that have to wait. Knowing how to play the songs well also adds a degree of confidence that will probably be obvious in the final mix.